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Chemical Spill in Nicaraguan Reserve Raises Questions About Industrial Mining Regulations

May 19, 2023

by Maxwell Radwin

A recent chemical spill in a protected reserve in northern Nicaragua is raising concerns about the contamination of several river ecosystems and the public health fallout for thousands of Indigenous people living nearby.

Earlier this month, chemicals believed to be cyanide leaked from a processing plant run by Colombian gold mining company Hemco in Bonanza, a town located inside an autonomous region controlled by several Indigenous groups. The plant also sits within the buffer zone of the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, the country’s largest protected area.

Although a Hemco statement said the spill was addressed immediately, community leaders reported pollution in the Kukalaya and Tungki rivers, where residents washing laundry complained of itchiness after coming in contact with the water.

Indigenous communities have for years struggled with water scarcity due to climate change and contamination from mining operations, both industrial and artisanal. Despite that the rivers are some of the only sources of clean water, leaders published a statement urging people to avoid bathing, drinking, doing laundry or giving the water to livestock for the next month. […]

But the country has also granted numerous industrial mining concessions to transnational companies in the Bosawás buffer zone, amounting to around 900,000 hectares (2.2 million acres) of land in just the last few years, according to the Oakland Institute, a think tank.

“People tend to focus on the colonos and the settler violence but following the political privatization of mines in 1994, it’s been the transnational corporations that have gained control of the vast mining concessions in Nicaragua,” said Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute.

Although the country has laws to regulate the industry, the government has turned a blind eye to environmental and human rights issues, according to the think tank.

“Indigenous communities face a duel threat. First the colonos were displacing them to carry out mining, but the second is the multinational mining corporations that threaten to displace them and poison the environment,” Mittal said.